With the Breedersâ€™ Cup World Championships just over two weeks away at Southern Californiaâ€™s Santa Anita, stakes are high and rising for participants in its series of wide-open races that could have a larger-than-usual impact on year-end championship honors.
The biggest year-end prize â€“ â€œHorse of the Yearâ€ â€“ could swing in one of several directions, given the ultimate results of two days of races in several Breedersâ€™ Cup divisions.
One would have to make Kentucky-based Wise Dan and the Bob Baffert-trained Game On Dude, runner-up to Drosselmeyer in the 2011 Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, the morning line favorites for the gold Eclipse Award that will be presented to Americaâ€™s top horse. But the only outcome that is close to a â€œsure thingâ€ in the 2012 Cup is that curve balls will be served up in some important races, and the debate over year-end honors will be hotter after the last race is run at Santa Anita on Saturday, Nov. 4 than it is heading into the event.
Given that scenario, here are a few thoughts on horses that have the most at stake heading into the Breedersâ€™ Cup races at Santa Anita:
Potential Biggest Loser
Game On Dude â€“ If he wins the Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic, which he will likely be favored to do, the Bob Baffert-trained son of 1998 Classic winner Awesome Again will probably be named â€˜Horse of the Year.â€™ Iâ€™ve never been a particular fan of this horse, but he is 4-1-0 in six races this year and his only poor outing came in a trip to Dubai for the $10 million World Cup in March. When it comes to placing a wager, he will see none of my money in the Classic â€“ but Iâ€™ll happily applaud him if he gets the job done.
But a poor effort by Game On Dude would take him completely out of the picture for HOY and, quite possibly, for the Eclipse Award that honors racingâ€™s best older male. Thatâ€™s because of the presence of the:
Potential Biggest Winner
Wise Dan â€“ Regular readers her know that it has been my firm belief throughout the year that Morton Finkâ€™s 5-year-old gelding is the best horse in America. Trainer Charlie Lopresti could send him to either the Mile on grass or the Classic, but insists the former is the most likely choice.
Wise Danâ€™s only loss on the year was a hard-luck defeat in Churchill Downsâ€™ Stephen Foster Handicap in his only race on dirt, but he dazzled over the same track in winning last fallâ€™s Clark Handicap. Itâ€™s my belief that heâ€™d be the favorite in either the Mile or the Classic, but Wise Dan has been an absolute monster on grass this year and Lopresti continues to express concern about how his star might handle the Santa Anita dirt.
Given his thorough domination of U.S. turf foes in his last three races, it would likely take a talented European to knock-off Wise Dan in the Mile. Should he win the Mile with comparative ease and Game On Dude stumble in the Classic, Wise Dan would be tough to vote against in the Horse of the Year balloting and would be close to a cinch as top turf horse, with the Shug McGaughey-trained Point of Entry being his only real competition there.
Given his versatility and strong performances on dirt and synthetic tracks this year, Wise Dan might also garner support in the voting for top older horse should Game On Dude falter.
Potential Big Winner
Royal Delta â€“ Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mottâ€™s star will seek a repeat of her emphatic victory in the Ladiesâ€™ Classic a year ago at Churchill Downs. The field is taking shape for that race continues to appear to be the most talented and accomplished of the 2012 Breedersâ€™ Cup, and an emphatic victory could vault Royal Delta into the Horse of the Year picture.
Her strongest admirers â€“ and I am a member of that group â€“ believe she would have a great chance to win the Classic had Mott decided to run against males. But he has three horses pointed for the Classic, so Royal Delta will face a sparkling group of female foes in the Friday evening finale that includes unbeatens Awesome Feather and My Miss Aurelia,and Grade I winners Questing, Love and Pride and Grace Hall.
Sheâ€™s been somewhat erratic this year, but has been very good on her best days. A big run by Royal Delta combined with subpar outings from Wise Dan and Game On Dude could put her in the hunt to become the fourth consecutive female to earn HOY honors.
Outsider With A Chance
Dullahan â€“ Trainer Dale Romansâ€™ 3-year-old is finicky about his racetracks, but has potential to be a big winner beyond the track should he show a liking for the Santa Anita dirt and score an upset win in the Classic.
The half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird has a record of 2-1-1 in seven races this year, but also ran third in the Kentucky Derby and his victories came over synthetic courses in a pair of Grade I events: the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, where he defeated Game On Dude in his only run against older foes.
A Classic victory â€“ which would be his second major win over older horses â€“ would earn some forgiveness among voters who had been frustrated by poor runs earlier in the year. It could propel him past the idle Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Iâ€™ll Have Another to a 3-year-old championship.
And speaking of that Derby winner â€¦
Iâ€™ll Have Another â€“ Trainer Doug Oâ€™Neillâ€™s colt remains the frontrunner for the Eclipse Award that goes to Americaâ€™s 3-year-old champion and, barring an impressive win by Dullahan in the Classic, that honor is likely his for the taking.
He won all four races in a campaign abbreviated by the injury that knocked him out of the Belmont Stakes and the last three were the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. No 3-year-old has done more this year and, should all the horses previously mentioned fail to deliver their respective best efforts in the Breedersâ€™ Cup, Iâ€™ll Have Another would still have a chance to grab Horse of the Year honors in this wide-open season.
While I will be most interested in the performances by the potential major stars of the 2012 Breedersâ€™ Cup, I will admit to a cheering interest in the fate of Shanghai Bobby in the Grey Goose Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile.
The son of Harlanâ€™s Holiday won Belmont Parkâ€™s Champagne by five lengths in his most recent star and a victory at Santa Anita would likely make him the 2-year-old champion and an early favorite for the 2013 Kentucky Derby.
There is a strong Louisville flavor in Starlight Racing, the partnership that owns Shanghai Bobby. The group is headed by Louisville native Jack Wolf and includes attorney and civic leader Ed Glassock and Glasscockâ€™s son, Clinton, among its partners.
Starlight and the Glasscocks have endured some bad luck over the past couple of years, including the just-announced retirement of unbeaten Algorithms, who looked like a major contender for the 2012 Kentucky Derby until he suffered a leg injury in February that required surgery. The colt returned to training in September, but the injury flared up again and he was sent to the breeding shed.
The partners also lost the brilliant female sprinter Hildaâ€™s Passion to injury just prior to the Breedersâ€™ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Churchill Downs in 2011.
The Derby is just under 200 days away and it will be a good while before anyone has an idea of whether Shanghai Bobby has the talent and the ability to excel at a mile and a quarter that are required of all Derby winners. But a victory in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile would be a wonderful reward for the Starlight Racing partners who have endured those recent and painful disappointments when all things seemed possible.
It would be a good thing to see them smiling in the winnerâ€™s circle at Santa Anita, and dreaming again of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby six months down the road.